Wednesday, January 03, 2007

All In or All Out, Redux

Now that he's is dead, and everybodybutEVERYBODY has seen all the videos documenting the execution of Saddam Hussein, including the cellphone bootleg, complete with soundtrack of taunting Shiites and the hanging itself, the international press has decided that they are shocked, shocked to find gambling going on in this establishment.

Nobody objected to the sanitized official MOS* video, which the major news agencies chose to cut immediately prior to the actual execution, leaving us with the image of a silent Hussein, rope around his neck, calmly awaiting his execution. It was the bootleg that caused the problems, it seems. Far from being the dignified, erudite, pristine event it appeared at first, the roughshod footage shows a much more visceral scene, complete with taunting witnesses, a defiant Saddam, and a shocking, near-instantaneous death.

Apparently, this video would have us believe that public execution is a violent, primitive event that tends to bring out the worst in both victims and witnesses alike. Unlike the period at the end of the historical sentence, we're left with the notion that this execution was less than civilized, less then genteel and sterile. It would seem from this video that execution is barbaric and unruly, disorderly and untidy, and -- if all goes as planned -- somebody's going to wind up dead of the whole affair.

Isn't it a little hypocritical to say that one video -- which has been sanitized for our protection -- is better than another -- which exists in its raw state -- because one depicts execution the way we wish it were, and the other as it actually is? Execution is a no-halfway affair. You're either for it or against it. If you're for it, you believe that execution is a viable punishment for something. If you're against it, you believe that nobody, but nobody should be executed ever, no matter the heinous quality of their crime.

My pendulum has swung back and forth on this issue, but I think, now, it's settled in the "no executions" camp. Why? Well, its not like I'm naive enough to believe that there aren't folks out there in need of a good killin'. And Saddam Hussein was certainly one of them. Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Aileen Wournos -- yep... they were definitely gagging for a big fat dose of "shut the fuck up and die already." There are plenty of people who will never be executed who ought to have been. Charles Manson and those three slags** he was convicted with for the Tate-LaBianca killings come to mind. So does that cow, Susan Smith, who strapped her little baby boys into their car seats and sent them into John D. Long Lake so she could be free to trap a rich man. She claimed she'd meant to commit suicide, really she had. I'll confess to having had fantasies of making that suicide dream of hers come terribly, painfully, horrifically true with my own bare hands.

So, please do not think for an instant that my opposition to capital punishment is about Christian charity and compassion. I'm still working on those fine, upstanding qualities. My objection comes not with regard to the flaws and foibles of the recipients, but with those of the administrators. We live in a country where, though African-Americans and Latinos together comprise approximately 20% of the American population, together they account for over 51% of prisoners slated to die at the hands of the State. Since I refuse to believe what white law enforcement officials and prosecutors have been spewing about minorities being more inclined to criminal behavior (I live in LA, after all, and have watched the LAPD in action), then I have to believe that there is a tendency for the white folks to put their fingers firmly on the scales of justice in order to tip them against minorities. Putting a man in prison for decades based on a co-defendant testifying on a plea bargain or a bad defense attorney is bad enough. Killing him is unconscionable, and I refuse to sit by and be silent while it happens.

As of this writing, the Innocence Project has used DNA evidence to exonerate 188 individuals wrongfully sentenced to death in the United States. These are the cases were DNA evidence existed. Many, many death row inmates are convicted through other types of circumstantial physical evidence or notoriously unreliable eyewitness testimony (or, in a few cases, pure prosecurial misconduct). How many people have we executed in this country who never got the chance to reprove their innocence? How many wrongly convicted souls have we sent to death, while prosecutors and politicians pat themselves on the backs and tell us that the defendants received "fair trials" and the "system works." Only a fool truly believes this system works -- or at least works well enough that we can rely on it to decide who lives and who dies.

But the primary reason I'm opposed to capital punishment is because of the reaction by those who are for it when confronted with the realities of it. Dying at the hand of another is messy, gruesome, horrifying business -- even if the "other" is the State. People who clapped their hands and jumped for joy at the death sentence for Saddam Hussein were fine with it, as long as it was something that was done behind closed doors, or they could watch the noose being tightened around his neck without witnessing the actual drop. And how much better not to have to listen to the taunting and jeering that witnesses hurled at a dying man as he met his end. And how much better still that they never see that trap door fly open and his neck snap -- rendering even the taunters and jeerers silent with the shock of it.

I applaud the person who had that cellphone. I applaud the people who chose to use the footage. This is execution. This is capital punishment. And if you're going to proclaim the right to insist on it, you should have the intestinal fortitude to see it in all its rough-hewn, unsanitary grit. With sound. With bad lighting. All the way to the end.

And if the international press corps doesn't like it, they're welcome to mosey on over and bite me.


*MOS is a film term which means that the film in question is presented without a soundtrack. The legend has it that Ernst Lubitsch, a native German speaker, used to ask that certain footage be shot "mitout sound," which was later shortened to MOS. More likely, however, the initials were taken from an old note that cameramen used to make to editors, noting that certain footage was shot "minus optical stripe", meaning any sound included would have to be dubbed in later.

** Patricia Krenwinkel, Susan Atkins, and Leslie Van Houten

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